Gary Kafer swivels in a black office chair and leans over a broadcast console, glancing up at the computer monitor to check this afternoon’s listener count. A bold, red “3” glares back at him from the screen, and, quickly, the College sophomore shifts his attention back to the song he’s playing—“Romance Layers” by the Manhattan-based band Gang Gang Dance. The electropop winds down as he slides his fingers over the console, where a thin needle shivers as it monitors audio levels. Kafer presses his lips into the microphone. The needle jumps.
“Hello. Welcome back. This is ‘Gary Kafer Sugar Wafer,’ Wednesdays 2 to 4 on WQHS, Penn’s only student radio.”
Kafer—along with the nearly 100 student disc jockeys who filter through the studio over the course of every week—broadcasts from the station’s headquarters on the top floor of the Hollenback Center, east of the Penn Museum and south of the South Street Bridge. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no surprise the space isn’t quite spick and span.
The floor-to-ceiling foam that’s meant to soundproof the tiny studio is peeling off the walls—as though it’s been clawed at, chunks of it lying on the floor beside pieces of trash and a powdery white substance that occasionally falls from the ceiling. “Asbestos,” guesses station manager and Wharton senior Shane Humphrey. [Not really—Ed.] Capital letters on a whiteboard implore DJs to clean up after themselves, but the floor of the back room is piled a foot high with CDs, grouped by sticky notes into categories like “Really Genre-y Stuff” and “Bad Music.” Overhead, the ceiling is riddled with broken or missing tiles.
A flier on a bulletin board carries the WQHS slogan: “Turn us on, we’ll turn you on.” These days, the station is having trouble doing either. But with a recent uptick in student participation, and the establishment of an endowment by Jeffrey L. Seltzer W’78, the future may be getting brighter.
The station traces its roots back several decades, to a time when Penn students aired shows on the AM portion of WXPN (which, after falling afoul of the FCC back in the 1970s, has over the years become thoroughly professionalized). Photographs from the late 1980s show student DJs wearing large round-rimmed glasses and duct-taped headphones, spinning vinyl records at 3905 Spruce Street, where both XPN and QHS once resided, now the home of Penn Press. The turntables and reel decks in those old photographs have since been stolen, broken, or replaced with digital equipment, but some things haven’t changed; the current studio still sports loud posters on the walls and a jungle of electrical wiring beneath the tables.
Phillip Remaker EAS’89 remembers installing the station’s first CD player when CDs were beginning to replace records, which nowadays lie untouched on WQHS shelves. Back then, the station broadcasted to only a few campus dormitories through short-range transmitters placed in the buildings. Remaker, who was involved in the technical and engineering aspects of the station from 1986 to 1989, calls his days at WQHS “an important rite of passage,” a time when he was a part of something larger than himself. “We probably had like six listeners,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a far reach, but we had enthusiasm.” He and other staff members often spent 10 to 20 hours a week at the station, and fellow DJs liked to drop by the studio just to hang out on each others’ shows.
Despite their enthusiasm, listeners only trickled in, much as they do now. Members of the WQHS board back then would often refer to their listeners as their “listener.” These days, the station’s Web platform enables a precise count at any moment of the day. College senior Sara Ehsani-Nia, who served as the station’s marketing and art director, estimates that most shows draw between 10 listeners and none. There are, of course, some exceptions, often based on how vigorously DJs advertise themselves. Former station manager Tanya Bogin C’11 once publicized her show “ROCKwork Orange” by handing out oranges on Locust Walk. Listenership peaked that week, and she and fellow DJ Maria Conde C’11 almost succeeded in crashing the radio’s server—a not-so-secret WQHS dream that the station has yet to achieve.
The station’s history of hard times (see the website—www.wqhs.org—for a vivid, not to say over-the-top, telling) got harder after it and WXPN vacated 3905 Spruce. While WXPN made the move to its shiny new building at 3025 Walnut Street [“Arts,” Jan|Feb 2005], WQHS wasn’t so lucky. The station suffered a short stint of homelessness; its transmission tower on top of High Rise South toppled during a wind storm, and couldn’t be replaced; the Student Activities Council cut funding; and the station went off the air for eight months as they made the move to Hollenback. The switch to Internet streaming was meant to broaden the station’s scope, but the station’s most loyal listeners remain DJs’ friends and family.
“Our history,” sighs Bogin, “is still these roadblocks.”
Spring break of their junior year, Bogin and program director Tiffany Ortiz C’11 stood together with former production director and blog editor Elliot Rambach (now a junior) in the WQHS studio and took a look around. They had spent the entire week repairing equipment, installing new furniture, and organizing hundreds of records. They admired the neatly stacked shelves and freshly painted walls. Bogin remembers thinking, “Things were going to be different now.”
And in some ways they have been. Not too long ago, the station still had gaps in its weekly programming, but now runs from about 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week. At last fall’s Activities Fair, the station recruited over 200 students. (A WQHS board member dressed in a head-to-toe gecko costume may have had something to do with it.)
“No one would’ve expected that, because we didn’t even have a full schedule at the time,” says Humphrey. “I think we signed up a little under 10 percent of the freshman class.”
The station has even begun to make itself known beyond campus. Last March, it put on a show featuring Baltimore band Future Islands at Johnny Brenda’s, a fixture of Philadelphia’s live-music scene in the Fishtown neighborhood. Humphrey, who grew up listening to the University of Minnesota’s Radio K, remembers that the concert made WQHS feel “like a real radio station.”
“We were talking to people in the audience who were like, ‘What’s this WQHS thing?’” Humphrey recalls. “Part of what made that Future Islands concert such a success and so much fun is that we were actually out there engaging with members of the [Philadelphia] community who’d never heard of us before.”
But the Penn community is a different matter. “We’re the undersung heroes of the local music scene in Philadelphia, especially on campus,” says Bogin. Some WQHS DJs blame their lack of popularity on the station’s location. A good 20-minute walk from the heart of campus, the station easily falls off the radar of Penn students and faculty.
“If we were in the place I think we belong,” says Ehsani-Nia, “like Houston Hall or perhaps a space inside of Van Pelt, where we could have glass soundproof walls … that sort of central location would not only attract more listeners, but also attract more pride in WQHS.”
Without demonstrated popularity on campus, the station’s funding will likely remain too small to organize the large concerts they hope to bring to students, and the station may continue to be a barely visible part of Penn’s music culture.
“I’ve been trying to move us out of Hollenback ever since I [was] program director,” says Bogin. “Everyone’s been trying to move us out … The space itself is really nice, but it’s just so far off-campus that you really have to be a radio lover and a music lover to have your own show.”
When the South Street Bridge was under construction two years ago, one DJ told The Daily Pennsylvanian that his route to the station became 20 minutes longer and included going around Franklin Field, over a set of train tracks, around Bower Field, and then over another set of train tracks. In fact, during DJ training days in 2010, Bogin remembers that WQHS enlisted five Penn Transit vans simply to transport DJs to and from the station.
“It became very difficult to recruit students,” says Bogin. “People would be interested, but when they saw how long it would take to get to the station, they were turned off of it.” But for a station that runs on a few thousand dollars a year, a space that’s rent-free is just too good to pass up.
Remaker and fellow WQHS members from the 1980s still keep in touch and reminisce about their days at the station, before everything went digital. When Remaker visited the station this past November, he was “tickled to see the sense of community still there.” He fondly recalls, “Some of my closest friends from Penn were from the radio station.”
Humphrey echoes that sentiment. “WQHS is more than just a radio station,” he says. “WQHS is more than just the rooms that we fill on the top floor of Hollenback Hall. WQHS is a community that’s designed to inspire and support people who love music, and who want to bring music into their lives.”
Ortiz also felt that the radio became a sort of “close-knit family” for her in her time at Penn. “The University feels so big, and I struggled so much to feel that I was connected to something.” she says. “For me, [radio] was always about linking up the University through this medium, and not only that, but bringing music to the local community.”
The family of WQHS alum Ian Seltzer C’09 recently set up a $25,000 endowment to help the station do just that. The station is planning to use the income from the Jeffrey L. and Annie Seltzer Student Radio Fund—a substantial supplement to its modest allotment from the SAC—to update their facilities, buy new equipment, and make a bigger name for itself, says Humphrey.
Also in the plans is an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner.
—Shrestha Singh C’12